I can’t comment with much expertise on the factual accuracy of the film.
What I can say is that, as a document, it lays out a fairly unambiguous argument in favor of the use of torture — otherwise known as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
The movie lays particular claim to the notion that information forced from detainees slowly revealed a trail that led to one particular courier, who in turn led CIA operatives to the compound in Pakisatan where bin Laden was hiding.
There are also two particular points in the film where Bush-era approaches to the war on terror are embraced.
In one scene, CIA operatives lament the fact that the detainee program, with torture techniques at their disposal, is no longer operational.
They suggest that the lack of this program makes it difficult for them to lock down information that might confirm bin Laden’s whereabouts.
In another scene, a Bush-era operative — who has just been chided by a rather high-handed member of President Obama’s national security team — pushes for more aggressive action.
The movie is only subtly political. But anyone who thought this would be a paean to Barack Obama’s national security team was woefully misguided.
Obama never appears in the film, except in a clip of news video where he is arguing against torture.
There are also a couple of moments when CIA operatives appear to be moving cautiously because they feel burned by their errors in Iraq, where they mistakenly believed that US forces would find weapons of mass destruction.
Given those reservations, howerver, “Zero Dark Thirty” left me with what seemed a clear message from the filmmakers that, taken together, the Bush era team was correct to view the campaign following 9/11 as a “war on terror.”
The film strings together terrorist strikes around the world, giving the impression of a coordinated global jihadi campaign of frightening scope and capacity.
Parts of that narrative are, I think, factually debatable.Radical Islam is not the political equivalent of 1930s fascism. Iran is not Hitler’s Germany and Osama bin Laden was not Rommel.
But it’s still healthy for us to be reminded that small numbers of terrorists using fairly primitive weapons and tactics are capable of inflicting extraordinary damage.
And it’s worth continuing to debate what measures we as Americans are willing to take to reduce those risks.
The film is only intermittently entertaining. There appears to be a deliberate effort to avoid James Bond-style theatrics. Scenes of tension dissolve into muddle. Drama evaporates in the moral morass of a complicated conflict.
Even the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound feels messy and awkward.
The SEAL team is good, but they’re operating in the real world, where doors jam and children get in the way, and curious people on the street mingle confusingly with people who might be actual terrorists.
This part, I think, is fairly admirable. It would have been easy to romanticize the hunt for the man who led the 9/11 attacks.
Instead, the film argues for a world that is complex and deadly and morally fractured in ways that many Americans — on the right and the left — would prefer not to know about.